JERUSALEM — In an unusually blunt address to parliament, Israel’s president accused the government Monday of delegitimizing vital democratic institutions as part of a campaign of stifling opposition.

President Reuven Rivlin opened the winter session of parliament with a scathing critique of his former political home — the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To them, he said, “everything is political.”

Israel’s president fills a mostly ceremonial role and rarely delves into partisan bickering. But Rivlin chose to focus on the growing divisions in Israeli society, pinning much of the blame on the country’s leaders — and its embattled prime minister.

“In this climate of de-legitimization, the atmosphere of ‘everything is political’ trickles down to the public, who receive the message that there is no more statesmanship, that there is only ruling and democracy. And in this climate, democracy means that the strong decides,” he said, seated at the dais opposite Netanyahu.

“Leadership in a democratic country is the art of creating agreements, not vanquishing opponents. A democratic society is based on building processes, not revolutions,” Rivlin added.

In recent months, Netanyahu has responded to various corruption investigations by attacking Israel’s media, law-enforcement, judiciary and other so-called “elites” he believes are bent on his removal. He began his address to parliament by listing his accomplishments, before once again ripping into critics, whom he called “sourpusses.”

“This is the golden age of Israel. Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented diplomatic and economic momentum,” he said. “The industry of despondency is still here and has respectable representatives in this house and in the media.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly dismissed the suspicions against him as “background noise,” but they have piled up at a dizzying pace.

The first investigation reportedly concerns allegations he improperly accepted lavish gifts from wealthy supporters, including Australian billionaire James Packer and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, which included copious amounts of champagne and cigars. A second investigation reportedly concerns Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to strike a deal with publisher Arnon Mozes of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper group to promote legislation to weaken its main competitor in exchange for more favorable coverage.

Netanyahu has been questioned in these cases, and police say they suspect him of being involved in bribery, fraud and breach of trust. One of his closest former aides has become a state’s witness against him.

Another investigation has engulfed his close associates and dominated news in Israel. The probe relates to a possible conflict of interest involving a $2 billion purchase of German submarines. Netanyahu’s personal attorney, who is also his cousin, represented the German firm involved and is suspected of trading his influence over the prime minister in return for a hefty cut of the deal. A former Cabinet minister and top former navy and security officials have been questioned by police.

Netanyahu pointed to the German government’s announcement Monday that it was ready to sign an agreement on three new submarines for Israel as evidence that there was nothing to the allegations against him.

“You pin your hopes on recycling the submarine story. But you know too that this story is now also sinking into the abyss,” he said. “So what’s left? Cigars.”

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ARON HELLER
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